Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. Only aim to do your duty, and mankind will give you credit where you fail.” But in these days of celebrity and cults of personality, the art of government has descended from honesty to optics. It is now deemed better to be seen to be doing something than to actually do something. The former provides a veneer of competence while the latter is fraught with the potential for disaster – and worse, negative press coverage.
President Biden – elected on the joint platforms of his decades-long career in Washington D.C. and much-touted empathy, along with the fact that he is not Donald Trump – has proven in today’s attention-deficient society that narrative is king, and substance is a burden to popularity.
Down on the Border
A key demonstrator of this optics war is the situation on the southern U.S. border, with two specific examples. First, as pictures began to appear in the media of “kids in cages,” all blame was cast upon then-president Trump. During a 2020 presidential debate, Trump even asked the question: “Who built the cages, Joe?” This was a direct reference to the Obama-Biden administration that constructed them.
But after the election, Biden did not end the “cage policy,” instead opting for a rebranding of the narrative. The cages were renamed “temporary border processing facilities” with fanfare from the compliant Fourth Estate. When the American public appeared unconvinced at this fairytale transformation of language, no more photographs or stories appeared in the mainstream media.
The cages didn’t disappear; they just stopped being talked about.
The second illustrative example is more recent. Just this week, news broke that more than 8,000 illegal immigrants were camped under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas – a number that more than doubled literally overnight. Drone footage from Fox News revealed more people were arriving every minute. In response, Biden did not order the closure of the borders, nor did he send more staff to assist in the processing. He instead told the FCC to ban drone flights above the area for the following two weeks. If you can’t see it, it isn’t happening.
Strong on Words, Weak on Actions
With the recent deaths of 13 U.S. military personnel at the Kabul airport, the president vowed retaliatory justice. In a speech that his news media supporters labeled “powerful,” he asserted that:
“To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay. We will respond with force and precision at our time, at the place we choose and at the moment of our choosing.”
Powerful words indeed. Yet, the actual follow-up has led to yet more disaster. Days after the tragic deaths, the administration boasted that it had taken out a terrorist in a vehicle containing a large amount of explosives; this was lauded as a promise made, promise kept moment. Yet once the dust had settled, several inconvenient truths came to light.
The “collateral damage” from the strike included a number of young children. But this is war – came the ever-ready narrative – how many more lives would have been lost if the terror attack had been successful? And then it is discovered that the supposed terrorist was, in fact, an aid worker delivering fresh water supplies. So no terrorists killed, no excusable collateral damage, and no fulfillment of Biden’s promised justice.
It was performative warfare for the sake of popularity.
Once Upon a Time …
Not so long ago, an administration and its leadership would have been judged on the concrete actions it performed, rather than its rhetoric. Words were like water, and it was deeds that counted. But all that changed when Donald Trump threw his hat into the presidential ring.
Trump was bellicose, belligerent, and had the fastest thumbs in the west, but he was effective in his actions. He brought North Korea to the international table, oversaw a booming economy, jobs growth, the Abraham Accords, and forced NATO allies to honor their commitments. For the media and the left to attack him, they could not point to his actions, so they opted for narrative control; attacking the words he said or the manner in which he delivered them.
Perhaps the denizens of the Swamp realized they were onto something. Wouldn’t it be far easier to control messaging rather than events? Wouldn’t life be so much simpler if the narrative were king and reality merely a footnote? This is where we find ourselves today. Style over substance and living lies in the fairytale kingdom of Joe Biden and his court of Fourth Estate vassals.
Read more from Mark Angelides.